DOG TROT CABIN

PLUS SOME RANTING AND RAVING

I'm going to try something a little different with this month's story. Instead of a photo of a dog trot cabin, I'm going to give you a model of one. First you download this big graphics file (It's big, one full meg). It might not all display on your browser, but you can drag it to your desktop and the whole thing (should be 8 x 10) will be there. Then you print it on cardstock at 300 dpi. You cut it out and paste it together and bingo, you've got yourself a 1/100th scale model of a genuine Arkansas dog trot log house with a porch. When finished it should look like this. Actually it should look better. I kind of slapped this one together just to make sure the pieces fit.

Through the magic of computers you can change the scale of your model. For example, 1/87 scale is popular with model railroaders. Just resize the graphics file to 115%, print and paste and you've got an HO scale model log house.

You can tell from the picture that a lot of the detail is just painted on. If you want to get intricate with the 3D details you certainly can. You can extend the ends of the logs. You can recess the windows, build out the frames, recess the gables, extend the eves over the loft beams. If you want to get really obsessive about it, you could print two sets of walls and paste them back to back so that the interior would show the log graphics as well. Knock yourself out.

The life model for this specific dog trot cabin can be found in the Murfreesboro city park.


In the 250 years from the earliest European settlement of Arkansas to about the beginning of the twentieth century, most non-Indian Arkansans lived in log houses. If you cruise around the state you'll see them. Half the cities in the state have a log house in a park or a public square as homage to our pioneer ancestors.

Nails cost money and so did milled lumber. And if you had money in 1830, you wouldn't come to Arkansas anyway. You would have bought yourself some good land in another part of the country. The Arkansas was the least desirable, least accessible, least hospitable part of the Louisianna Purchase. There were a few arable strips of bottomland along the rivers, but for the most part Arkansas was malarial swamp in the east and thin-soiled mountains in the west. Pioneers did not show up in Arkansas with a pocket full of silver. They had no Social Security, no health insurance, no 401k, no Roth IRA, no Pell grant, no Freddie Mac, no Fannie Mae and no student loan. What they got from the government was the promise that if they could hold the land they could keep it. It might be two miles to the nearest road and five miles down that to the nearest neighbor. What they did bring with them was their strong backs and a borrowed axe, and from dead scratch mud nothing they built a life for themselves out of what was in arm's reach.

The pioneers piled up logs to make walls, and they notched the logs to make them interlock so their own weight would hold them in place. This was called "saddle and notch" construction. If they had an adze and a drill in addition to an axe, they could hew the logs square and fit them together with pegs. The pegs were made of dried wood and holes were drilled in logs still green. As the logs dried, the holes shrank around the pegs, seizing them permanently. Peg and hole construction required more tools and more skill, but the cabin was tighter and didn't require so much chinking.

Chinking is the practice of plugging holes in your wall with clay or straw or pieces of old shirt or anything, really. Rough log construction left a lot of irregular cracks in the walls which had to be chinked, and since the chinking dried out and fell out and got blown out by storms and scratched out by varmints and insects, chinking was regular maintenance. The less you had to do, the more time you had to spend on other matters.

The chimney was the hardest and dirtiest part of making the cabin. If you could afford a wood stove you didn't mess with a chimney; and you'll notice the model doesn't have a chimney. Definitely the abode of a frontier aristocrat.

Building chimneys involved some guesswork. Remember you don't have any money so you don't have any proper cement, bricks or mortar. You're going down to the creek and hand carry to your building site a half ton of flat flagstone that you hope won't 1) explode when heated and/or 2) shift and collapse when the weather changes. You cut a hole in one wall and start stacking rocks around to make a fireplace. Most chimneys are rock topped with a wooden extension. The higher you stack your rocks, the more likely it is to fall over, but the less likely the upper wooden part is to catch fire from a long lasting spark. If your chimney is rock or brick all the way up, then you either got some mortar or you're some kind of expert rock balancer. Mud or clay is spread on as if it were mortar, but it adds little structural strength. It's mainly just sealing cracks. And by the way, next summer bees are going to burrow into that mud and make their homes there. Something to look forward to.

The basic design is the one room cabin. You make for yourself an enclosed rectangle of logs and you cut a hole in one wall so you can get in and out. The dog trot cabin is a compound of this design. The builder places two one-room cabins several feet apart with their front doors facing one another and covers them with a common roof. Not only does the breezeway provide shade and ventilation in the sweltering Arkansas summer, but walling in the dog trot quickly adds a third room to accommodate additions to the pioneer family.

On the subject of roofing, and bearing in mind that the pioneer had no money and no place to spend it if he had any, how did he make a roof to shed rain? The most primitive roof was made with parallel poles covered with slats split from raw timber. These slats were in effect large wooden shingles. They were laid overlapping on the roof poles and were held in place by the weight of sapling poles which were laid diagonally across them. Sleeping space was most often in the loft, so if the roof leaked you knew about it right away. According to Gerstaeker (note below) one man could build a one-room cabin from scratch in two days.

The disposition and purpose of the traditional rail fence changed with time. Before the Civil War settlers turned their cattle loose to forage in the woods. A fence was built surrounding the cabin not to keep livestock in but to keep it out. If you had no barn, the animals would seek shelter where they could find it. Goats will climb to the highest point they can reach, and that's a bad way to discover the disadvantages of having your shingles held on by the weight of sapling poles. Only the calf of your milk cow was kept inside the fence, a kind of lure that insured Elsie would come round on her own when her udder was full.

All this was fine as long as the population was sparse enough that your animals were not competing for forage with your neighbor's animals. At that point, in the couple of decades following the Civil War, people started arranging their fences to separate "my stuff" from "your stuff." The barn which before had customarily been built in front of the house, across the road and outside the fence was now being built behind the house and within the fence.

In the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" there's a scene in which a gruff north British character describes to his son how he had managed to build Swamp Castle against all advice and odds on absurdly inhospitable territory. Show that movie to a bunch of Arkansans and that scene evokes not laughter but misty-eyed nostalgia. A perpetual marginal existence is so assumed to confer nobility on the Arkansan that some of us are reluctant to do better for fear of disgracing the sacrifice of our ancestors.

Take for example our traditional ritual meal, the Arkansas seder, corn bread and turnip greens. These two items can be ordered in any diner in the state any time of year in spite of the fact that corn bread can be kind of bland and lots of people can't stand the bitter mineral bite of turnip greens. These plain foods, however, sustained our ancestors on the poorest of soils through the hardest of times, and to eat cornbread and turnip greens and pretend that you like them is to honor and acknowledge the hardiness and resilience, if not the good sense, of your great grandparents.

Right about here is where I start ranting and raving. If you didn't think the Unabomber Manifesto was funny, you probably won't care for the rest of this article either. This is your chance to hit the "back" button.

When we compare our lives today to those of our ancestors we find that we've become obsessive compulsive worker bees hurrying back and forth from flower to hive, socking away our paychecks. Then we pay someone to build our house. Then we pay some utility to heat and light our house. Then we pay a grocer to get our food for us. Then we pay our taxes so the police can protect us physically. Then we pay a daycare and preschool to raise our children for us. We daily run back and forth and back and forth to earn cash so that we can pay somebody to live the most basic elements of our lives on our behalf.

The basic elements of living, getting food, staying warm, making shelter, all that stuff has been replaced with a cash equivalent. For the last ten thousand years the trend of human civilization has been away from independence and toward interdependence, the surrendering of our daily functions to specialists and professionals. Doing this requires the consolidation of smaller social entities like families, clans and tribes into larger entities like city states, world religions, nations, corporations, empires and hegemonies, more efficient and requiring more organization and more central authority.

I could be overromanticizing the frontier. It was crazy dangerous and often unnecessarily so. Every house with a pot bellied stove had no restraints to prevent a child from putting his hand on it. My dad got his first knife when he was six years old and within 24 hours he had learned how not to cut himself. If you turned your first grader loose with pocket knife today the state would take that kid away from you. Help on the frontier was remote if it existed at all. The nearest cop or doctor could easily be a day's ride away. Your medicine was in the herbs you found in the woods and your cop was the shotgun you kept over the mantle. You were clean maybe once a week for a couple of hours. Disease bearing mosquitoes marauded all the warm months and you had no deet, no window screens, and remember that the millions of acres of fertile farm land you see today were skeeter-breeding swamps up until the 1930's. Our forefathers lived half their lives with pellagra and infestations of parasites, and the woods around their dogtrot cabins were home to wolves, mountain lions, bears and giant man-eating feral hogs. Those animals were capable of coming after you, but they'd be just as happy to eat your livestock or your food stores, which would be just as bad for you as if they had attacked you directly. Even something as trivial as a possum finding its way into your root cellar could result in serious hardship. Any little injury or infection or moment of carelessnes that today wouldn't even be noted in your diary could have been fatal to a frontier family a hundred years ago.

Today we've smoothed out life's rough edges, childproofed our cabinets and legislated away all the dangerous splinters of a rough-hewn dog trot house and we are infinitely safer and happier today than our ancestors were.

In a way.

Our ancestors lived in a personally dangerous environment and they were personally responsible for dealing with those threats and handling the occasional catastrophe. While every piece of playground equipment built today is coated with rubber so they'll never have to experience a splinter or bruise, our children face the prospect of instant wholesale incineration at the hands of people who have access to the best bunkers tax money can buy. The kinds of dangers we face today, from terrorist attacks to invisible industrial contamination to nuclear war, are rarely directly addressable by the individual. Our individual efforts against modern dangers are as futile as prayer was against polio before modern science came to our rescue. The threat is remote and without recourse, out of reach like a voodoo curse and grotesquely, massively destructive. We've saved ourselves from the naked Franklin stove and replaced it with newer, bigger horrors like the Nuke of Damocles, devised by the same technology and social institutions that require us to have seat belts in our cars.

Ironic, right?

All this extra safety we have bought for ourselves is an illusion. We have replaced concrete reality with conceptual equivalents in hopes of disguising modern dangers that can not be rectified and which our system seems unable to diminish. If a tree falls on our car, the company gives us the cash value of the car as determined by a computer. The cosmic balance is maintained. Terrorists kill 3000 on 9/11, the government determines the cash value of those people and issues checks to the families.

What was this article about, anyway? Oh yeah, dog trot cabins.

RTJ--8/1/2004

Sources:

McKim, Jimmy; History of the Hunter Homestead in Van Buren County, Arkansas; Arkansas Historical Quarterly, vol. 12, pp 378-386; 1953.

Friedrich Gerstaeker in Arkansas; Arkansas Historical Quarterly, vol. 5 pp45-46; 1946.

Wiggington, Eliot; The Foxfire Book; pp 53-115; Doubleday and Company, Inc.; Garden City, NY 1972.



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